A Time for Optimism? Biden’s LGBTQ Support Provides Hope, but Highlights Persistent Social Exclusion

Caroline Voyles and Randall Sell

Pete Buttigieg’s historic appointment as the first openly LGBTQ cabinet member in the United States and Dr. Rachel Levine’s potential to become the first openly transgender person to receive Senate confirmation of a presidential pick do indeed raise hope. However, LGBTQ people are underrepresented in the Biden administration, and in elected and appointed government positions in general. There are only two openly LGBTQ members of the Senate, nine of the 435 representatives are openly LGBTQ, and two ever Governors of a state.

LGBTQ people are missing elsewhere as well, in arenas of work, school, and play. Why are there only four heading Fortune 500 companies, and perhaps fewer than 50 of 3000 universities headed by someone LGBTQ? Additionally, no players in the NHL or MLB, for example, have ever been out during their active professional career.

This lack of openly gay leadership has implications for others at various levels within these spaces and demonstrates a lack of social inclusion for sexual and gender minorities. This is despite efforts on behalf of these institutions to increase their diversity and inclusion initiatives related to sexual orientation and gender identity. While 91% of Fortune 500 companies have antidiscrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation and 83% have those inclusive of gender identity, the fact that only 0.8% of CEOs in these agencies are openly LGBTQ suggests that more nuanced exclusion persists within the business world. Within academia, LGBTQ students in certain fields, such as those related to STEM, drop out at higher rates compared to those who are straight, suggesting exclusionary forces within academic science. More explicit forms of discrimination in sports are currently being pushed forward within the US judicial system as multiple states are proposing legislature to prevent transgender athletes from competing on teams aligning with their gender identity.

These exclusions in work, school, and play settings highlight a lack of fulfillment of multiple human rights described within the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, including rights to work, to education, and to participate in social life. However, they are neither new nor uniquely American, as they are firmly rooted in historical injustices both within the United States and in other parts of the world. Throughout history, sexual and gender minorities have been, and are still, arrested and imprisoned for engaging in same-sex sexual activity; required to use bathrooms that do not align with their gender identity; institutionalized against their will; expelled from schools and colleges; prevented from adopting or parenting children; barred from military service; denied housing; and do not have marriages recognized. Even in areas of the world where some of these policies no longer exist, their legacy persists.

While the Biden administration is pushing boundaries in its appointments and policies, we need to ask why this administration, state and local governments, sports, business, and academia are not doing much better. Current rates of inclusion are unacceptable. The explicit policies that the Biden administration has implemented to ensure legal anti-discrimination protections only scratch the surface of exclusionary norms that stymie American unity and the flourishing of individuals in the pursuit of academic, athletic, and professional successes.

Caroline Voyles, MPH, is a PhD Candidate, Department of Community Health & Prevention, School of Public Health, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA. Email: chv25@drexel.edu

Randall Sell, ScD, is a Professor in the Department of Community Health & Prevention, School of Public Health, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA.